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Editorial Roundup: Recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers

March 5, 2019

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

Muskogee Phoenix. March 3, 2019.

— Raise for corrections workers less expensive than alternatives

A legislative performance audit recommends an additional $19.1 million be spent this year to increase wages for state corrections workers in Oklahoma, where more people are imprisoned per capita than anyplace else in the world.

Oklahoma prisons are overcrowded, dangerously understaffed, and on-site correctional workers are grossly underpaid. Those who work behind prison walls reportedly work 12 hours a day, earning $13.74 an hour, and oftentimes five to seven days a week.

Bobby Cleveland, executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, said for every six employees hired by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, seven workers quit. It’s a “very dangerous job” that requires a special skill set, and those willing to undertake it deserve fair compensation.

State corrections officials have struggled with overcrowding issues for years due to a tough on crime mentality. Oklahoma voters decided a couple of years ago to check that with criminal justice reforms. Resistance among some lawmakers delayed those efforts, but there are some signs of forward progress.

But while there are inmates in the state’s custody, lawmakers must ensure the prisons housing them are staffed with competent employees. That will happen only when the compensation package is something that is attractive to those looking for jobs in Oklahoma.

The state presently pays nearly $16 million in overtime pay because of staffing shortages, and retention rate for officers with less than two years of experience is 43.9 percent. Both are signs of problems, and those problems can lead to failures in security and safety of both the workers and the inmates.

Lawmakers must step up with more money for wages or risk the consequences, which could include lawsuits and an even costlier federal takeover of the state’s prison system.

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The Oklahoman. March 3, 2019.

— Bold choices for parole board

Gov. Kevin Stitt made clear with an earlier funding proposal that he was interested in improving Oklahoma’s pardon and parole process. His three appointments to the parole board underscore the point.

Stitt recently appointed Adam Luck, Robert Gilliland and Kelly Doyle to the five-person board, saying they will “bring a fresh perspective to the review process.” Time will tell how that manifests itself, but the selections are certainly a departure from the tradition of choosing former judges, prosecutors and law enforcement personnel.

Luck, 30, is executive director of the nonprofit City Care, which works to help Oklahoma City residents in extreme poverty. He once served as Oklahoma director for Right on Crime, a conservative initiative that advocates for criminal justice reform. He’s a former member of the state Board of Corrections and was chairman of the Department of Corrections’ criminal justice reform committee, which in January recommended changes such as doubling the felony theft threshold to $2,000 and reducing sentences for some drug-related offenses.

A recent change in state law requires two parole board members to have at least five years of training or experience in mental health, substance abuse services or social work. Doyle, 38, fits that bill. She is executive director of the Center for Employment Opportunities, which helps former inmates find jobs and housing.

Gilliland, 77, is a former trial lawyer with experience in state and federal courts, and is former chairman of the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission.

They join retired judge Allen McCall and retired probation officer Larry Morris on the parole board, which faces a backlog of about 1,000 cases. The backlog stems in part from reform advocates working with inmates to complete applications; to help deal with that, Stitt has requested spending $150,000 to hire two additional Pardon and Parole Board staff members.

Stitt has also said he would like the parole board, which has final say on inmates incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, to approve more requests. In fiscal year 2018, only about one-third of such requests were OK’d.

Through the years, Oklahoma’s traditionally low parole rate has led many inmates to simply forgo the process and instead serve out their time and be released without supervision. That practice has contributed to the state’s prisons remaining filled well beyond capacity.

The parole process also has lawmakers’ attention this year — a bill by Rep. Josh West, R-Grove, would require the board to provide a reason when denying an inmate parole. It also would require the board, when rejecting parole requests from inmates serving time for “85 percent” crimes, to suggest remedial actions that might help them prepare for their next parole request.

Not that many years ago, applying the term “reform” to corrections drew mostly yawns or scorn inside the Capitol. Stitt’s appointments are a further indication those days are over.

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Tulsa World. March 5, 2019.

— House Bill 1395 would give scrutiny to virtual charter schools

State and federal law enforcement and the Oklahoma Legislature are reportedly taking a closer look at Epic Charter School, a fast-growing online and blended school system that has drawn 10,000 new students and tens of millions of dollars in state funding this year alone.

Epic is a charter public school system conducted largely on the internet, but questions have been raised about whether some Epic students are also enrolled in private schools. That would be an inappropriate use of state education money to help private school students.

Concerns have also been raised that Epic isn’t sufficiently transparent about the connections between its nonprofit operation and a for-profit management company that gets 10 percent of its state funding. We don’t like the involvement of the company’s senior leadership in both ends of the operation, especially if taxpayers can’t see where their money is going or how it benefits Epic’s students.

Virtual charter schools have their place. For some children they are the right fit, but taxpayers deserve the assurance that the state’s limited funding for public education is being used appropriately and an essential element of that is to make sure the processes are transparent and subject to the same level of scrutiny as any other school system.

On initial inspection, we like House Bill 1395, which has been offered by Rep. Sheila Dills, R-Tulsa. The bill would require Epic and other virtual charter schools to be subject to the same financial reporting requirements and audits as traditional school districts. Virtual schools would have to report any contracts for administrative fees, including the names of people holding contracts, the amount to be paid for services and details about what services are provided.

The bill also would require virtual charter school governing bodies to be subject to the same conflict-of-interest requirements and continuing education requirements as traditional school boards.